Interesting discussions last week at the Senate Estimates hearings on the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade portfolio. One of the key interrogators, Senator Trood, has confirmed our view that our diplomatic services are perilously close to critical condition.

In an ABC interview with Monica Attard last month, the new Secretary of DFAT, Dennis Richardson, called the under-resourcing of his department 'the great hangover', a reference to 'the contraction in the size of the department between the early 90s and 2008'. While the Australian publlic service grew by around 25-30 per cent from 1996-2008, he told Ms Attard, DFAT shrank by 11 per cent. Richardson used the evocative 'hangover' metaphor again in Estimates last week.

A figure Mr Richardson could have referred to, but didn't, was the shrinkage in Australia's overseas representation, which plummeted from 870 Australia-based staff overseas in 1989 to 537 in 2009, according to DFAT annual reports. That's a very ill-looking 38 per cent dismemberment. Right at a time of rapid globalisation. As Ms Attard queried, 'can you continue to pursue the Prime Minister's objectives like the Asia Pacific community by 2020 with that sort of money?'

More importantly, can DFAT perform even its most basic functions with that sort of money? 

Senator Trood used the consular affairs function as an example. Every year, the number of Australians travelling overseas increases. It doubled between 1999 and 2009, and having hit the 6 million mark last year, will grow again by around 12 per cent this year, according to April Bureau of Statistics numbers. Around 25-30,000 of these will call on DFAT for assistance — and this demand is growing both in number and in complexity. 

Pressed on the increase in consular demand, Mr Richardson conceded that this particular 'pressure point' was only going to worsen over the next few years.

The department's great resource is its staff. In October last year, the Committee heard, 110 additional staff were to be recruited. That commitment was reduced to 74 this year. This budget, according to Mr Richardson, promises 59 additional staff. That's a commitment for 133 additional staff over the last two years.

But seven were withdrawn from our largest overseas posts following last year's budget. And while at June 2009 there were 537 Australia-based staff overseas, by June 2011, according to Mr Richardson, there will be around 570. By my count, that's 33 additional staff overseas. Only one in four of the additional staff recruited will be in frontline positions — where the bulk of the consular workload falls. 

Senator Trood probed persistently about the challenges facing DFAT and the money it has at its disposal. What came out in the hearings was that, despite the modest funding increase of around $200 million (partly reversing cuts over the previous years), the 'engine room' of DFAT — where policy-making takes place — is not receiving any part of this additional funding. It's in what Mr Richardson called 'a steady state'.

This steady state is unlikely to cure the department's 'great hangover'.

Photo by Flickr user Mil, used under a Creative Commons licence.